Varley leads the Munster chorus of quiet discontent
Published 20/12/2011 | 05:00
Little wonder that there were much mixed emotions emanating from Thomond Park -- and not just from the home dressing-room.
Denied their perennial knockout berth in their favourite competition last term, surely the Munster folk and players would be cock-a-hoop at their unbeaten start in Heineken Cup fare this season?
And yet, despite a 4-0 run that emulates their opening quartet of fixtures in 2006/07, when they first defended the title, enthusiasm jousted with pessimism amid the post-mortems.
As someone else noted, Munster probably played a tad better at this time last year yet failed to make the last eight; amid a period of generally acknowledged transition and uncertain play, 12 months on they are well primed to resume their habitual quarter-final residence.
But as the calculators were whipped out to prognosticate their team's fate in rounds five and six, it seems that some were primarily more eager to ascertain permutations that would not see Munster qualify, as opposed to how they might get through to the knockout stages.
Securing a five-pointer against Top 14-chasing Castres in round five at Thomond Park is the minimum requirement; the French side rolled over and had their collective bellies tickled in Franklin's Gardens on Sunday, so that shouldn't be a problem.
But then you look at Munster's inordinate difficulty with scoring tries; back-three injuries haven't helped, but there is also a more pertinent issue, with criticism of the team's attacking coach, Jason Holland, continuing to rain down from the stands.
The players must assume some blame too, though; when Munster attempted to hammer home their superiority in the third quarter, a 17-phase attack included dumb, heads-down lunges from Keith Earls and Lifeimi Mafi.
"Our attack wasn't as good as we would have liked it to have been," conceded Damien Varley. "We felt we were defending in a lot of the game and at times very passively, allowing them to break the gain line, putting ourselves under pressure.
"We want to improve there and also get our attack structure a bit better to hammer home games." Had they managed that, Sunday's climax would have been far less fretful.
"Some days things come very easily, some days they don't and Sunday was one of those," agreed Denis Hurley. "We created opportunities but we didn't get the ball over the line. At least we have Christmas to look over these things."
Munster may still be able to sneak from their final pool game with Northampton with just a losing bonus point. Again, that was the predominant view of sceptical locals, but perhaps they were being a bit too hard on themselves.
Given how expertly they have blended an infusion of new players with a winning habit, a win in Northampton may not be beyond them, a result that would propel them into the top four seeds who earn home ties.
Offered this position 12 months ago, Munster would have bitten your hand off.
"We're not winning that well in terms of scoreline," admits Varley; Sunday's six-point margin represented a veritable caning of the opposition in this pool.
"But at the same time it's four from four in a very competitive group in a tough competition. We're in a good position. We'll take it and regroup for the Christmas fixtures and the last two rounds of the Heineken Cup.
"We won't dwell on it. There are obviously areas from all the four games so far that we want to make progress on and improve, but if you're not playing well and still grinding out results, that's a positive.
"We'll review it this week and work on the areas we think we need to improve on."
One of the other positives from Sunday's outing was the seamless reintroduction of Earls for the first time since damaging his knee in the opening minute of November's clash with Leinster at Lansdowne Road.
"It was terrific for Keith," gushed McGahan, already reeling from the loss of Dougie Howlett and Felix Jones from his attacking line-up this season. "We were monitoring him closely and wouldn't have put him in position if we didn't feel he would get through it.
"We knew he would get through; whether he would get through to 80 was a different matter, but he pushed himself hard. He's a great athlete and looks after himself extremely well.
"I thought he was good. At 13 he gave us a little bit of difference there. Keith will certainly be better for the run."
Earls created the two best openings of the first half, ultimately winning a penalty with his first sleight of feet in crowded traffic, while his second break nearly earned Simon Zebo a try in the left corner on the verge of half-time.
Still, captain Paul O'Connell has been eager to stress that Munster should never be in a position where self-pity accompanies injury news; rather it should represent the opportunity for others to seize the day.
"I don't think you can moan about injuries really. The way the lads have performed in the British & Irish Cup over the last two years, we've a lot of guys dying for an opportunity here at the moment.
"And whenever they've come in, they've always done really well. So, while injuries aren't great they give a great opportunity for other people to bring a fresh face into the team.
"Zebo, I thought, was excellent again today. But it is great to have a bit of experience back with Earlsy. We saw a few lovely touches from him and that's always a strength to any team."
His return will add a pep to Munster's step as they head into their festive season double-header, against Connacht, in Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day, and away to Ulster four days later.
Munster became so addicted to success in this competition that perhaps last year's shock exit still reverberates around the famous old ground, hence the supporters' suspicion of transition despite their perfect winning record.
"It is indicative of where we are as a squad," said McGahan. "We have a lot of belief. We are still growing in this competition."